Dueling with the Red Dragon
Three marathons in three days on the wild Welsh coast equals a humbling and exhilarating adventure for six veteran Canadian runners.
When the voice inside tells you it’s time to jump out of your comfort zone and into the unknown, what does it take to make that leap?
Longer runs? More mileage? More hillwork? More speedwork? More coaching?
Or maybe, all it takes is a simple leap of faith—the conviction that, yes, you can do this … with a little help from your friends.
For six masters-age runners from Vancouver, British Columbia, the voice called early in 2011 and they answered it on the rugged coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales. Betty Tod, Hilary Ewart, Jan Snow, Lishe O’Kiely, Pat Woods and Tom Lucas train together in Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains. When Betty, who had hiked in Pembrokeshire, suggested the Pembrokeshire Coast Challenge (PCC)—three marathons in three days along a rugged coastal trail—the game was on.
“Hilary and I were looking for our first adventure ultra,” Betty recalls. “We had gone overseas for road-marathon holidays and wanted to expand on that. We picked the Pembrokeshire Coast because I had hiked it and marveled at how spectacular it was, even in very bad weather. And so it grew!”
“We’re used to running in West Coast rainforest, surrounded by cedar trees, gnarly rocks and roots, up and down mountains, and not much in the way of views or open spaces,” says Pat. “When I saw photos of the open Pembrokeshire coastline I thought: ‘Yeah, cool runnings!’ I wanted to find out how my body would respond to running three marathons over three days.”
Despite its 78.6-mile length and multi-day format, the PCC seemed within reach. Welsh weather in mid-November would be much like home—grey, cool, rainy, windy—while the maximum elevation on the course was just 425 feet, a fraction of the thousands of feet they routinely climb on the North Shore.
Classic Pembrokeshire coast terrain: Pastures give way to steep cliffs and the path skirts the edge, just feet from a steep drop to the ocean.
The runners share many years of trail and road experience but varied experience in trail ultras, mostly participating in local fixtures such as the Knee Knacker 50K, on Vancouver’s North Shore, and the Diez Vista 50K―a rugged traverse of the Diez Vistas ridge east of Vancouver. Hilary ran her first 50-kilometer race just last spring while Pat, the strongest runner in the group, finished the Canadian Death Race (125 kilometers) in July.
“In the Death Race, I had to dig deep to find reasons to keep putting one foot in front of the other,” says Pat. “It was a confidence builder, and I knew I could go the distance in Wales.”
After training and racing in local events through the spring and summer, the Canadians began preparing for Wales in September by running “back-to-backs”—two- and three-day clusters of long runs to get them used to the long days and short recoveries they’d face in the PCC. After a few two-day sessions in September, most of the group ran five consecutive three-day weekends through October and early November, peaking with two to five-hour runs and up to 20-mile days. The rest of the week involved only a single short run or an evening of speedwork.
“The back-to-backs were really important because we knew we had to be able to get up the morning after a long run and do it all over again,” says Jan.
Says Hilary, “Realizing I could feel better after day one gave me tremendous confidence. I think that was the point when I realized that I could do this.”